Crackdown on raptor killing

North Yorks pilot to be rolled out nationally

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Despite the launch of a police operation to combat illegal persecution of birds of prey in North Yorkshire, new figures from the RSPB reveal that last year the area still had the worst record in the UK.

In 2018 the organisation recorded 87 confirmed cases of persecution across the UK, 15 of them in North Yorkshire. They included incidents of shooting, trapping and poisoning. Nidderdale, north west of Harrogate, remained a particular blackspot. Elsewhere the Dark Peak area of the Peak District was badly affected.

Guy Shorrock, senior investigations officer at the RSPB, said persecution is concentrated on driven grouse moors where birds of prey or raptors such as hen harriers, peregrines, buzzards, sparrowhawks, goshawks, short-eared owls and red kites are often not welcome.

Unspoken approval

He said Natural England data from satellite-tagged hen harriers between 2010 and 2017 shows 72 per cent of the 58 birds tagged were killed or likely to have been killed on or around grouse moors.

“Since 1990 two-thirds of those convicted for raptor persecution have been gamekeepers,” said Shorrock. But he said such behaviour receives unspoken approval from estate managers and owners.

“Gamekeepers are small cogs in big machines,” he added. “The whole estate management and shooting industry is creating a playing field for gamekeepers to act in this way.

“The confirmed incidents are just the tip of a very large iceberg. I’d be astonished if we’re recording even 1 per cent of what’s actually taking place.”

In February 2018 the police launched Operation Owl in North Yorkshire, a new drive to bring those responsible for bird crimes to justice. The police joined the RSPB, the RSPCA and the two national parks in North Yorkshire to ask the public to be on the alert in the countryside and report any signs of crimes being committed.

Over the weekend of 21-22 September, Operation Owl is being rolled out nationally, co-ordinated by Superintendent Nick Lyall of Bedfordshire Police.

He said: “Events will be taking place all over the country as more and more forces are joining up all the time. To the public, I say: ‘Be our eyes and ears.’ To those involved, I say: ‘The net is closing in and your time is up.’”

There are signs that public frustration over grouse shooting is growing. A petition to parliament to ban it was set up in August by Wild Justice, fronted by TV naturalist Chris Packham. It received 70,000 signatures in its first week.

Shorrock denied that continuing bird crime in North Yorkshire might point to Operation Owl having failed. He said it should be judged in more ways than just through a body count.

“The operation may not have done much yet in cutting persecution but the success has been in raising public awareness,” he said.

Sergeant Stuart Grainger, who is leading Operation Owl in North Yorkshire, agreed, and said progress might be slow. “I hope it isn’t, but it could take years before we make great strides in halting bird of prey persecution,” he said.

Organisations representing gamekeepers and moorland owners maintain they are doing their bit to help. The chair of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, Liam Bell, said: “We insist our members operate within the law. Anyone found to be doing otherwise and convicted of a wildlife crime has their membership withdrawn.”

Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, said: “We condemn any wildlife crime and one incident is one too many. Those who break the law deserve to be punished. We are involved in a great deal of effort and many initiatives aimed at eradicating raptor persecution, wherever it takes place.”

Main image: Guy Shorrock of the RSPB (Sebastian Oake)

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